150th Anniversary of Building the Transcontinental Railroad

by Molly Matthews


On May 10, 1869 at Promontory Point Utah, Leland Stanford joined the rails of the Central Pacific and the Union Pacific railroad with a 17.6 karat gold spike. The new Transcontinental Railroad connected the United States for the first time: growing the west, changing commerce, and ultimately how Americans lived. This anniversary cover of Irish Luck, Chinese Medicine honors the work of thousands of Chinese and Irish who connected America by rail.

For the first time, Irish and Chinese immigrants, although segregated in separate work camps, labored alongside one another. When researching the book, it was no surprise to learn that the relationship between the communities was fraught. The Chinese laid track at a much faster rate than their Irish counterparts which did not endear them to the Irish. A strong work ethic and sense of community helped the Chinese succeed…and stay alive. They drank rice wine and whiskey but did not engender a reputation as drunks. They were strict about cleanliness and boiled their food (preventing communicable and intestinal illness.)

As I gathered information about Irish and Chinese characters who bridged the racial and cultural tensions to form trusting friendships, I found myself wishing we knew more about the daily lives and how these groups interacted. More primary research maybe be coming from Stanford University’s The Chinese Railroad Workers in North America Project that “seeks to give a voice to the Chinese migrants whose labor on the Transcontinental Railroad that helped to shape the physical and social landscape of the American West.”  Learn more here.

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